The Flavour Thesaurus: More Flavours: Plant-led Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for Cooks by Niki Segnit (Bloomsbury)
Niki is the genius behind The Flavour Thesaurus, one of the most authoritative books on cooking this century. In fact her work is mentioned in several other books on this list. Such is its influence, the first volume of The Flavour Thesaurus was spotted on David Cameron’s Number 10 bookshelf in an official photograph.
A decade later, she has created a sequel, this time exploring plant-led pairings. For example, on the endpaper flavour wheel, she describes buckwheat, oat, corn, honey as ‘flower and meadow’, whereas vanilla, sweet potato, coconut and banana are ‘creamy fruit’. It’s a new way to think about food. She will match mustard with cranberry, cumin, green bean, miso, papaya and turmeric, to name but a few.
How I use her books is to take an ingredient that I happen to have or is in season, look it up and then let her matching suggestions stimulate new dishes and combinations.
Invitation to a Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food by Fuchsia Dunlop (Penguin Random House)
Fuschia Dunlop is another British food writer who leads the world, in this case exploring, researching and explaining Chinese food.
I once interviewed her in a top Soho Chinese restaurant, where she was the consultant expert creating the menu. That’s how respected she is, even amongst the Chinese. Having trained in Chengdu, the first Western chef to have completed the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, she is fluent in Mandarin, and can write characters when it comes to food terms.
This is not a cookbook; there are no recipes. It’s a chronicle of Chinese food, each chapter details a dish, and its place in history, culture and health. A classical Chinese banquet attempts to balance flavours and cooking techniques so that at the end of it, you feel well, not full, energetic rather than burdened with rich heavy foods.
As for the name Fuschia, her parents were reading Ghormenghast trilogy when they had her.
The Secret of Cooking by Bee Wilson (Fourth Estate)
This is the first cookbook for food historian Bee Wilson. I’ve had Bee over to lunch. She is, quite simply, a thoroughly nice and enthusiastic person with no snobbery or grandeur despite her status as another world leading British food writer.
Her approach in this book is that of an amateur cook, not a chef, and so is accessible, warm and doable. She understands that cooking can be a drag, can make you stressed, anxious and guilty. As with many mothers, food can be a duty, as we ask ourselves, am I making the right food for my children?
I love her honesty. At the beginning of lockdown, she writes, her husband left her for another woman. All those decades of cooking and caring didn’t matter to him. The way to a man’s heart is decidedly not through his stomach. I know this from experience: I’ve been single for over a decade. She sought healing through more cooking. I get this too. Cooking is therapy, routine and comfort.
Bee is generous with credits, taking recipes from several cooks and chefs and acknowledging them. I’m thrilled she mentioned a recipes from my Organic Carrot Cookbook. It was baked carrots with butter – probably the simplest one. (Dry with a tea towel after washing to get that baked potato style ‘skin’.)
The tips are useful and time-saving: don’t bother salting aubergines or peeling ginger; use frozen vegetables; use machines and gadgets as short-cuts; most things are improved with a squeeze of lemon; buy digital scales; use every side on your box grater; recipes aren’t commandments hewn in stone. In brief: make your cooking life easier.
This is the most human and relatable cookbook, written beautifully.
The Extra Mile: Delicious Alternatives to Motorway Services by Kerry O’Neill (Glovebox Guides)
This guide to the best roadside caffs in the UK is perfect for keeping in the glove department of your car. The structure of the book is well-designed; you can search by motorway or by region with information on where to get your EV car charged or whether there is wifi.
Travel is not just the destination but how you get there. As a child we would drive to our run-down cottage in the Armagnac region armed with a copy of the Relais Routiers, France’s best lorry drivers cafes.
One such establishment turned out to be the kitchen of a housewife rather than an official restaurant. We were nervous at first, sitting at her red-gingham-clothed table, her son on his lunch hour(s) in a vest next to us, while she swirled around busily, plonking down rustic, simple but delicious dishes. This was in fact one of my core inspirations to start a supper club.
O’Neill suggests going ‘the extra mile’ off the motorway to eat; discovering humble gastronomic gems, with the added benefit of pumping money into the local economy. Recommendations include:
- The Bothy Bistro in Moray, Scotland, one minute off junction St Boswells on the A72, serves smoked Shetland mussels.
- The Edge, 13 minutes of junction 14 on the M5, does homemade Scotch eggs and butternut squash salad.
- Nearer to home there is the Tuning Fork, four minutes off junction 18 on the M1, where eggs on herby avocado with Egyptian nutty dukkah is on offer.
- Discover Tablehurst Community Farm, three minutes from junction Forest Way on the M25, where you can enjoy wood-smoked sourdough pizzas.
I’d be quite happy not going anywhere and just touring the establishments mentioned in the book – that’s quite a trip in itself.
Brutto by Russell Norman (Ebury Press)
Russell Norman’s books are always beautifully designed, with a characteric exposed and stitched spine.
Having explored the cuisine of Venice in his first two cookbooks, Russell now turns his italophile questing palate to Florence. I recently visited the city and the colourful central food market, with lampredotto stalls (tripe sandwich, not for me thanks), truffle pasta, Negroni cocktails and Schiacciata (mini focaccia sandwiches) outlets are in abundance. There are recipes in this book on how to make these things yourself.
You will also find unusual recipes such as pecorino brulée, and an apologia for the saltless tuscan bread (you eat it with highly flavoured sauces so you don’t notice the lack of salt). At the end there is a gazetteer of Russell’s favourite trattorias should you wish to visit. Wish I’d had that on my visit.
A Dark History of Sugar by Neil Buttery (Pen and Sword)
Buttery – what an evocative name for a food historian. But this book, winner of the 2023 Guild of Food Writers first book award, is not a comfortable read. It puts Britain on trial for how we became wealthy through slavery. On our sugar plantations in the Caribbean, we first decimated the indigenous populations, the Caribs, working them literally to death, making them extinct. Then we imported slaves from Africa to work cutting the cane (the sharp shards shredding hands), pressing the cane (if your arm got caught in the machine, there was a handy machete to hack it off for the production line must always go on), the decimation of forests to feed the fires to boil the syrup. Britain may have been the first nation to ban slavery but according to Buttery we were also the cruellest masters. Is sugar disease diabetes a karmic price the West is now paying?
Honey Sapiens: Human cognition and Sugars, the Bad, the Ugly and the Good by Mike McInnes (Hammersmith Health books)
Continuing my research into sugar, I received this interesting book by pharmacist Mike McInnes. He contends that we could be called Honey Sapiens rather than Homo Sapiens because of the role that honey foraging and collecting played in developing our big brains.
Sugar led to two evils and four diseases:
- enslavement of natives where sugar was grown plus the importation of slave labour
- the second ‘enslavement’: our modern addiction to sugar.
There are three modern sugar based diseases that are incontrovertible: obesity, diabetes 2 and Alzheimers, sometimes known as diabetes 3. McInnes states that autism is created by sugar. Certainly many parents of autistic children believe it is caused by a problem with the gut microbiome.
Honey contains bioflavonoids and Quercetin so it’s ‘good’ sugar. He argues that honey actually protects you from the ill effects of sugar. But could diabetics eat honey rather than sugar? Wouldn’t that be great?
Deliciously Ella’s and her cohort of ‘clean eating’ bloggers recommended dates rather than cane sugar. But this is nonsense according to nutritionists because anything ending in ‘ose’, is sugar, whether it be fructose, maltose, sucrose, dextrose or lactose. Likewise sugar can be brown, white, beet, cane or coconut but it’s all harmful sugar. Certainly Neil Buttery takes that view, even though in an online talk I attended he did admit that molasses contains minerals and iron.
Where sweetness is better for you is when it contains fibre: hence dates or fruit as opposed to fruit juice. Honey does contain traces of protein, vitamins and minerals. Research suggests mixed results so far when it comes to honey and diabetes.
BReD, Sourdough Loaves, Small Breads, and Other Plant-Based Baking by Ed and Natasha Tatton (Penguin)
A handsome, heavy volume, this is another book on how to make sourdough, this time with sides of veganism, animal rights, zero food waste and other environmentally friendly food trends. Ed and Natasha moved from the UK to Vancouver. She runs yoga workshops while he bakes. Recipes I’d like to try: panettone buns, dark chocolate and miso babka, Meyer lemon tart (if only we could get Meyer lemons here) and maplecomb, similar to honeycomb but with maple syrup.
Jassy Davis, aka Gin and Crumpets, was a well-known food blogger with a witty turn of phrase. After a series of cocktail books, she now tackles the internet trend of ‘boards’. Never heard of them? It takes the cheese board concept and ramps it up to 11. Various foods are artfully arranged on a board for grazing. It’s similar to the ‘girl dinner’ meme, whereby you assemble a series of no-cook snacks.
Boards can be savoury or sweet. In this book you learn tricks as to how salami can be made to look like roses (with an upturned glass). Charcuterie, fresh seafood, butter boards (as weird as it sounds, though I must admit I’ve been dying to do one myself) smeared with flavoured butters, frosting boards (equally strange) with puddles of different coloured icing into which you dip biscuits. Then there are the crevice fillers: herbs, olives, grapes, cherry tomatoes, which you arrange around the main show.
The Cheese Wheel by Emma Young (Penguin)
Impressed by Emma at a food event, I started to follow her cheesy adventures on instagram @thecheeseexplorer. This book expands on Niki Segnit’s idea of a wheel of flavours, this time exclusively about cheese, so you go from milky fresh, mushroomy bloomy rind, to farmy washed rind, to acidic semi-hard, to animal hard cheese, then to herbaceous blue.
Each chapter curates a selection of international cheeses with recommended pairings and detailed descriptions. It’s very much for the cheese nerd (me!).
Her suggestions for a cheeseboard include the following. Always choose an odd number, say three, five or seven cheeses. Most people don’t know that cheeses are seasonal, they are at their best at certain times of year – think of this when selecting. Goats’ and ewe’s cheese suit spring; whereas Mont d’Or, for example, is better in autumn. You can also put together boards by nationality.
Madame Fromage’s Adventure in Cheese by Tenaya Darlington (Workman publishing)
After years of highly industrialised bland cheese, American cheese has, over the last couple of decades, had a renaissance.
Madame Fromage (@mmefromage on social media) is an American cheese expert whose book is written in a chatty, friendly style with cute illustrations, almost in the manner of a children’s book. Many of the cheeses are unknown here in the UK (when will there be an American specialist cheese shop?) other than, say, Monterey Jack.
Her template for a great cheeseboard is different from Emma’s: she suggests a conversation piece cheese, a comfort cheese, and a local cheese.
Cheese is effectively portable milk probably discovered by accident during nomadic travels. Madame Fromage takes you through the evolution of cheese starting in 5000-6000 BCE (ceramic sieves discovered in Poland and Croatia) to the first macaroni cheese recipe appearing in The Forme of Cury in 1390, to the first cheese factory in Switzerland in 1815.
Madame Fromage suggests drinking glasses of milk in different seasons to see how it affects cheeses flavours: spring milk is delicate and floral; summer milk is golden and thinner; autumn milk is grassy and rich; winter milk is fatty and straw-like. This is an approachable yet fascinating encyclopedia of cheese. One for your lactic library.